Monday, October 21, 2013

Down By The Mission "San Miguel"

One of the sidelights of the American folk revival (from roughly 1930 through about 1970) was the creation of hundreds and then thousands of songs labeled "folk" by their composers or by the record companies or by the music press. At first, of course, ethnologists regarded the thought that a "new" song could be labeled as folk as absurd. The very definition of the genre at its inception as an academic phenomenon was that folk music consisted almost exclusively of traditional songs passed down orally through many generations - and consequently songs whose authorship was usually unknown. Exemptions to the rule were sometimes granted to songs of known authorship that had worked themselves into the folkways of the country, like those of Stephen Foster for instance, or songs whose authorship was discovered by dint of hard scholarly work by those same ethnologists and music historians. Less often, topical songs that provided some cultural insight into a particular period or event were also granted a pass and allowed to enter the sacred Temple of Folk - think of the songs from the Civil War era by George F. Root ("The Battle Cry of Freedom," "Just Before The Battle, Mother") or Daniel D. Emmett ("Dixie") or Patrick Gilmore ("When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again").

These prescriptions and definitions were turned topsy-turvy by the commercial aspects of the folk revival. When mass media in the form of radio and recordings became the primary formats through which music was disseminated (as opposed to previously when live performances and sheet music and family and local gatherings did the job), the public's insatiable appetite for the novel and new, and not coincidentally many performers' desires for more personal artistic expression than traditional music afforded, the term "folk" came to be appended to newer songs that would not have made the grade just a generation before. And when folk became a big-time commercial phenomenon in the late 1950s, after a few years of bitter debate about "authenticity" in the music press and among performers, the thought that a "folk song" necessarily had anything to do with "traditional" went the way of  bobby socks, black and white television, and honor among politicians - gone, and scarcely ever seen again.

Today, no fully satisfying and comprehensive definition for what folk music is exists at all - beyond, of course, Big Bill Broonzy's oft-quoted quip that "All songs are folk songs - I never heard no horse sing." On the whole, this is probably a good thing, since we can recognize distinct elements of traditional folk like melody, form, and instrumentation in the compositions of skilled crafters like Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Billy Edd Wheeler, Bob Dylan, and many more. At the same time, though, another and perhaps lesser brand of song also emerged, derided by critics as "fake folk" or "faux folk" - tunes that sought to imitate traditional tunes rather than to evoke the spirit of the old in contemporary compositions. A song like Jimmy Driftwood's "The Battle of New Orleans" might serve as a good and representative example of these, or perhaps Hoyt Axton's "Greenback Dollar." Nothing wrong with these at all as pop songs written in folk style, but to call them "folk" per se still excites the dyspeptic ire of some critics, one of whom wrote a few years back that "The invention of the faux-childlike faux-folk song was one of the greatest forces in the infantilization of American culture." I'd recommend that the writer take a deep breath and then inhale a couple of belts of a good whiskey - if such a fate has befallen the good old U.S. of A., it wasn't folk music fake or otherwise that made it happen.

One writer/composer who enjoyed a degree of success at creating such songs was Texan Jane Bowers (1921-2000), for whom music publisher and watchdog BMI lists 35 copyrights still in force. In the latter stages of her composing career, from the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, she was identified primarily as a kind of in-house composer for the Kingston Trio, occasionally in collaboration with KT founding member Dave Guard, and the group recorded 10 of those 35 tunes. But a significant number of other folk and country artists like Johnny Cash, Donovan, Lonnie Donegan, Bob Dylan, and Guy Clark also recorded Bowers' tunes. In fact, Bowers' best-known and most enduring song, "Remember The Alamo", the one recorded by most of the aforementioned performers, was initially waxed in 1956 by country great Tex Ritter, three years before it appeared on the Kingston LP At Large.

Bowers wrote a wide range of folk- and country-inflected tunes, but her stock-in-trade was embodying re-imagined and mythologized history in the lyrics of her many of her songs and then creating a tune to match them, as was the case with "Alamo," which the linked article discusses. Bowers' take on early Southwest history, from California and Texas most particularly, was imaginative, to be charitable. In "Coast of California", for example, a song beloved of many KT fans, Bowers fantasizes a pirate type of tale in which some buccaneers intend to boost a hidden treasure from a cave near Ensenada in Baja California. It is purported to be "treasure stolen from the Incas," hidden in the cave when the treasure ship "Clara ran aground." Bowers never explains why a treasure ship bound for Spain would have headed north to Baja from the Incas' native Peru when treasure ships originating there routinely sailed south and hazarded the Straits of Magellan around the tip of South America and thence into the Atlantic and home. And I had to laugh at the lyric

There's a mountain in the ocean on the coast of California
And deep within its side, the tides of night alone reveal
El Diego's hidden cave

There are plenty of mountains in California both Upper and Lower, but none in the ocean unless you count the Channel Islands, a good 250 miles from Ensenada. Yes yes, I know it's just a song - but this is all pretty egregious.

Even with missteps like those, however, Bowers' best work retains both a special kind of lyricism and a well-crafted sense of drama - two qualities that are abundantly clear in her very interesting early Southwestern romantic tune, "San Miguel." The plot line at first seems simple enough. A household servant of a rancho near a Mission San Miguel (there are three: one in Santa Fe, one near San Antonio in Bowers' native Texas, and the most famous and possibly the site of this song, San Miguel Arcángel near present day Paso Robles, California) waits upon the mistress of the casa grande, La Doña María, married to the ranchero. Our narrator named Manuel, however humble he may be, has fallen in love with the great lady. In his imagination, the mission bell warns him against harboring so impossible a dream, though he also imagines that

I hear with my heart what she says with her eyes

-  and the cryptic and pregnant final line of the lyric implies that Manuel may indeed have hope for the lady's reciprocation of his love.

From here, though, the plot thickens. Manuel is a laborer familiar with the mission, and this and the omission of a surname for him point to the likelihood that he is either a Native American or perhaps a mestizo. Bowers' lyric endows Manuel with a child-like simplicity, which in the early twentieth century of Bowers' childhood was considered to be a significant sign of the moral innocence of the natives (in stark contrast to the actual missionaries' sense that they were idolatrous devil worshipers) in a kind of Rousseauian "noble savage" ideal. But the very thought that a romantic attachment could be created or maintained across racial lines would have been charged with controversy both in the colonial era of the tale as well as in the decade of the song's composition. Bowers is treading here, however lightly, on dangerous ground. The mournful and melancholy tune, structured in a mostly minor key and with an authentic and accurate Spanish chord progression, underscores both Manuel's sadness and the secret and forbidden nature of his passion.

The first recording of "San Miguel" was as a vocal solo by the KT's Dave Guard on the group's third studio album, Here We Go Again:

The song is ideally suited to Guard's vocal style and his own sense of drama, and Bowers may well have had Guard in mind when she wrote the number, this despite a sometimes problematic relationship between the two over copyrights and arrangements.

The Here We Go Again album was a raging success, capturing a Grammy nomination in 1960 and entrenching itself as the #1 album on the Billboard charts for an impressive 9 weeks, which was behind only the Trio's At Large and the original Broadway cast album of The Sound of Music for the longest tenure in the top slot in 1959 and 1960. Not surprisingly, a goodly number of the songs on the record were covered by other artists, including "San Miguel." British skiffle legend Lonnie Donegan recorded "San Miguel" two years following in 1961:

Donegan is doing his dead level best here, but he has made some odd creative choices. His uptempo and heavily percussive arrangement takes most of the drama out of the lyric, replacing it with a kind of anguished teenaged angst. And while Lonnie is trying to invest his singing with what he feels is a Spanish flavor, he is making a huge linguistic mistake. The pronunciation of the letter r is of course markedly different in English and Spanish - in the latter, the tip of the tongue starts on the roof of the mouth and creates a kind of clipped roll to the sound. Donegan, however, is pronouncing most of his r sounds with a trill, which is used in Spanish only for the letter when doubled, as in ahorro - but never for an interior single letter, as here Donegan does in "María" and "Carlos" and a host of other words. And I cannot figure out why Donegan would say "Manuel" correctly (as "man-WELL") but fail so excruciatingly as he does by changing the pronunciation of "Miguel" from the correct "mee-GELL" to the awful "mee-GWELL." A sign of the times, I suppose - at least Lonnie is trying.

Nearly a decade later, popular French folk and ballad artist Hugues Aufray, who covered many American folk tunes (most famously "Santiano," a major hit for him, and an entire album of Bob Dylan songs) translated the number into his native tongue:

This was from late 1968. My French is a bit rusty, but Aufray's translation sounds fairly accurate to me. He also employs a guitar accompaniment strongly reminiscent of Dave Guard's.

In the 1970s, popular British-Kenyan balladeer Roger Whittaker gave the number his own distinctive treatment:

Whittaker has made another interesting creative choice here. Like Donegan, he has speeded up the tempo considerably from the original, but he has done so with an eye to creating a flamenco interpretation of the number, emphasized here by the lead guitar line.

Finally - a version performed by three friends of mine - George Grove, a member of the Kingston Trio now for 37 years, plus KT bassist Paul Gabrielson, with lead vocal by Alan Hollister:

The occasion of the performance was the annual KT Fantasy Camp in 2009. Alan creates exactly the right mood vocally, and his hand-strummed guitar accompaniment (something that I have seen him do countless times when we have played together) is perfect for the song. George is staying faithful to the original KT arrangement as he always does but at the same time embellishing it subtly and tastefully - as he also always does. George has a beautiful take on the song himself on one of his solo albums, but unfortunately it isn't on YouTube right now.

Jane Bowers was not trying to pass off "San Miguel" as anything other than what it was: a darkly atmospheric modern evocation of the Spanish colonial era, one which hints at issues which plagued their society and continue to some degree to plague our own. I doubt that she would ever have termed it a "folk song," given the span of her life and the era in which she wrote it. It isn't fake or faux anything, and I doubt that anyone got infantilized by listening to the number and loving it. Ironically, however, Bowers' respect for the authentic music of the era of the narrative, audible in the well-designed melody and in her good faith attempt to write lyrics that captured the ambiance of the time and place, render "San Miguel" rather closer to whatever "real" folk music is than most anything claiming the title that is released today.


In the interests of full disclosure and historical accuracy: the picture above is an 1832 painting of Mission San Gabriel, which happens to be a ten minute walk from where I now sit and whose church remains to this day as depicted here. I just couldn't find a good enough illustration for the real San Miguel.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads"

The death of John Denver sixteen years ago yesterday was a jolting moment for many people of my generation, a quiet reminder that all things must pass and that youth and life are fleeting and fragile. This was so both for those who loved JD for the soaring idealism and romanticism of his compositions and the ringing clarity of his voice, as well as for those who derided him as a shallow and sentimental poetaster who purveyed a uniquely awful brand of musical treacle. But love him or hate him, you could for all intents and purposes not ignore him for the two or three years of his peak popularity - roughly 1973 to 1976 - because he was absolutely everywhere in those days: consistently at the top of the album charts, making frequent forays into the Billboard Hot 100 Top Ten singles chart as well, including four #1 records, a frequent guest host on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, host of his own series of highly-rated network television specials that stretched well into the 1980s, in a starring role in a major Hollywood film with legend George Burns, in addition to a few other dramatic roles, as primary host of the Grammys five times, in nature specials and guest spots on popular variety programs - you could scarcely turn on the radio or TV for a few years then without bumping into JD's earnest voice and toothy grin. By most measures, no single artist in the world sold more records during those three years than did John Denver, the mop-haired and granny-glassed self-proclaimed "country boy" from Roswell, New Mexico who became a poet laureate of the state of Colorado and co-composer of one of the most popular songs in West Virginia - and one of American pop culture's first true multi-media stars.

In the best music business tradition, Denver's handlers (with the perhaps naive cooperation of Denver himself) promoted him so ruthlessly and exploited his popularity so thoroughly that a kind of JD exhaustion set in perhaps rather earlier than it needed to; after 1976, he never had another album or single record hit the top twenty on the primary charts, and though his albums have continued to register in the catalog sales reports to this day, his brief stint at the top of everything gradually faded, leaving him with a much-reduced but extremely loyal fan base in the 1980s and 90s. Too bad, really, because Denver continued to write beautiful and moving songs during those years, and as his live performances attested (see his 1995 Wildlife Concert video), he was singing much better at the time of his death than he ever did when his name was a household word and he was an international celebrity.

There was another unintended consequence of Denver's brief time as a superstar. Popular media saturation helped turn a genuinely talented performer and songwriter into an object of satire and derision. He was mocked with regularity everywhere from the Doonesbury comic strip to Saturday Night Live to anywhere else that a comedian could don a wig, a flowered shirt, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses. The very earnestness and unabashed sentimentality of his songs that had helped make him a cultural phenomenon was turned against him: he became a symbol of what some regarded as the post-hippie self-absorption of the early and mid-1970s. The fact the Denver consistently devoted a very large chunk of his very considerable fortune and huge amounts of time to advance the causes in which he believed - the environment, world peace, an end to world hunger among others - earned him no consideration from an increasingly cynical popular press in America. The ultimate indignity may well have been that Denver, who for more than a decade had been working with and donating to a number of foundations trying to end hunger, was not invited to sing on the "We Are The World" recording that was created to raise money to alleviate the effects of the devastating famine in Ethiopia and other parts of East Africa in the early 80s. Most of the four dozen or so singers who did participate had never had any involvement  at all with that particular cause, and the "commitment" of many of them ended when they walked out of the studio. That was never what John Denver was about.

The final casualty of the overexposure and the multi-platform popularity was that they have obscured for a time just how fine a writer and performer Denver was. The overt emotion and euphoria over nature in many of his songs might not be to everyone's taste, but the craftsmanship of melodic structure, instrumental accompaniment, and poetry of lyric in dozens of his tunes are undeniable. Denver's most popular numbers did not share the introspective angst of the compositions of most of his singer-songwriter contemporaries, and in the wake of his death in a light plane crash on October 12, 1997, the obituaries tended to focus on his popularity rather than on his musicianship - or on the likelihood that a goodly number of his tunes like "Annie's Song" and "Follow Me" and "Rocky Mountain High" among many others will almost certainly outlive him by decades.

Chief among these may well be JD's first hit record, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," known almost equally as "West Virginia." The song came apparently out of nowhere to dominate the airwaves for weeks in the spring and summer of 1971, rising as high as #2 on the singles charts and selling a million units by autumn. Denver was listed as co-composer in the copyright: he had become friends with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert (a duo known at the time as "Fat City"), the act that opened for him at The Cellar Door folk club in Washington, DC. Danoff and Nivert had written the first verse and part of the chorus of the song, and knowing that Denver had authored a #1 single (Peter, Paul and Mary's rendition of "Leaving On A Jet Plane"), as well as many of the songs on his first three LPs for RCA Records, they asked him to help them complete the number. Denver obliged, helping to write the second verse and composing by himself the distinctive and highly effective bridge to the last choruses. Appropriately then, our first version of the song is a performance on Australian television by Danoff, Nivert, and Denver:

No lip-syncing here, no auto-tune - two guitars and three voices only in live performance, an endangered species in pop music today. And in support of fans' contention that Denver's voice improved dramatically over the decades after his peak, here he is in the aforementioned Wildlife Concert in 1995, two years before his death:

Denver's voice had deepened, and there were darker shadings in it as well as better breath control and less of the occasional reediness of his early years.

JD's allusion to Olivia Newton-John's hit with the song in the Land Down Under makes her version the next logical choice:

Newton-John, of course, was another international phenom at the same time as Denver, and the two collaborated on a number of hit tunes. Her version here is rather more straight-up than many of her own popular songs, which often tended to be ornate and over-produced.

"Country Roads" has been covered hundreds of times, and the folk-ish simplicity of the melody lends itself to a wide range of interpretations - as Ray Charles demonstrates here:

Charles retains the slightly uptempo rhythm of the original while stamping it with his own inimitable blues styling.

The tune is quite naturally adaptable to country and bluegrass genres. Next, Grand Ole Opry legend Roy Acuff reminds us of what country music actually sounds like:

...and Nashville studio/sessions legend Charlie McCoy renders unto country the things that are country's in this outstanding instrumental version:

McCoy is playing harmonica, guitar, and bass here. Both Acuff's and McCoy's tracks leave me shaking my head and wondering what the hell has gone wrong in Nashville over the last few years - they're not producing music there any more that sounds anything like this or is remotely as good.

Next, classic bluegrass harmonies from the Osborne Brothers:

A reggae arrangement from Toots and the Maytals, here from 2011:

Also fairly recently, Holland's Hermes House Band had a huge international hit in 2001 in the UK and on the Continent with this rock/reggae/bossa nova arrangement:

Finally - I always like to include amateur performances in these posts when I can find worthy ones, and I think that this one by Wingrass, a group from Japan that covers American folk and country tunes, has much to recommend it:

The vocals are competent and the instrumentation good, but what I really like about this Wingrass version is that the band slowed the tune down and added the almost mournful fiddle line, bringing out the melancholy and wistfulness in the lyrics that even Denver himself seemed to overlook at times.

I am a little surprised at myself by how little of John Denver has actually appeared in the almost two hundred posts on this blog. Denver was if nothing else a gifted performer and showman, and a fine interpreter of the work of other writers as well, as his performance of Steve Gilette's "Darcy Farrow" so clearly indicates. I like quite a few of his songs, including many that were just tracks on his albums and never singles or hits, songs like "Eclipse" and "Rocky Mountain Suite" and "Whispering Jesse" and many more. That oversight is sure to be rectified in the coming months, even given my predilection for looking at traditional songs in these articles. And the pop world seems to have turned a corner in its evaluation of Denver's music. Independent record label Red House Records released what I thought was a first-rate tribute album called Take Me Home in 2000 that featured reinterpretations of JD songs by indie artists like Bonnie Prince Billy and The Red House Painters. This year, ATO Records put out an album called The Music Is You with major artists like Lucinda Williams, Dave Matthews, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Emmylou Harris contributing.

Even more - also this year, a group of opera stars headed by Denver collaborator (in 1983 with Perhaps Love) Placido Domingo released a very well-reviewed CD called Great Voices Sing John Denver. The disc was the brainchild of music business legend Milt Okun, producer and musical director for the likes of Denver, Domingo, Harry Belafonte, Peter, Paul and Mary, and The Chad Mitchell Trio. It was Okun who mentored Denver into big time show biz when JD replaced Chad Mitchell in that group, and Okun supervised many of Denver's solo albums as well. The classically-trained Okun loved Denver's compositions, and that is saying quite a bit in and of itself. I recall that a week or so after Denver's death, the Los Angeles Times' respected rock critic Robert Hilburn published a retrospective on JD that essentially damned the singer with faint praise, mustering no better compliment than "soothing" for Denver's music and highlighting many of the rough spots in Denver's personal life. In a remarkable, moving, and very well-written response published in the same paper, Milt Okun took polite but strong exception to Hilburn's remarks. "I will bet," wrote Okun, "that in 25 years the artists and groups whose work Hilburn now finds so compelling will either be forgotten or remembered only in the Billboard lists of big sellers, while Denver's songs will continue to be sung in schools, at concerts and around campfires and will have become part of the cultural bloodstream of America." Time has indeed seemed to have borne out Okun's prediction, but for me the highlight of the response was the way that Okun closed it, and it is a fitting closing for this post as well:

"John's songs deserve serious consideration, serious critiques. He really represents the best of what the American popular musical community has accomplished. I hope that in time and with the consideration of serious critics like Hilburn, John will be accepted in the company of great American creators such as Stephen Foster, Charles Ives, Scott Joplin, Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein.

I knew John Denver. I know his music. He was no lightweight."